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Salvation Army close to meeting Gwinnett goal

LAWRENCEVILLE - For more than 100 years, the Salvation Army's red kettles and jangling bells have been a part of the Christmas season.

But across Georgia and the country this year, the group's leaders were worried that increased giving following Hurricane Katrina would result in empty kettles at Christmastime.

In Gwinnett County, at least, they had nothing to worry about.

The Salvation Army had raised $142,111.85 by Thursday morning, and Capt. Bobby Westmoreland said he was confident the group would be able to reach its $150,000 goal by the end of ringing today.

"This is a successful year," he said. "I think the kettles are only getting stronger. People give to what they know works."

The ringers, as they are known, are at 34 locations throughout the county, including a number of Wal-Marts, the Mall of Georgia, Gwinnett Place Mall and Discover Mills.

At Discover Mills, ringers do not have the traditional bells, but instead hold a sign that says "Ding" on one side, and "Dong" on the other. Westmoreland said it is the mall's policy not to allow the bells, but donations don't seem to have suffered from the "miming ringer." Nearly $9,000 was collected at two entrances.

But the most generous shoppers, by far, are those at the Mall of Georgia, where ringers have collected more than $27,000 at four locations.

The red kettles began in San Francisco in 1891, and Westmoreland said the money raised in the campaign is primarily used for Christmas toys, clothes and food for needy children and families.

The Salvation Army expects to help about 4,000 people in Gwinnett County this year, an increase of more than 1,000 from last year's fundraiser. The campaign raised just over $129,000 in 2004, starting the day after Thanksgiving and continuing until just before Christmas.

Any funds that remain after Christmas, Westmoreland said, go to funding social services in the county.

A number of chapters do not expect to meet their goals for the year, Westmoreland said, but sensitive businesses in Gwinnett and generous residents have made the county's plight easier.

"Odds were, we should be down," he said. "A lot of other communities are being hit very hard. Most of the state of Georgia is not coming close to reaching their goals."

Westmoreland said the goal of the Salvation Army is to reach the poorest of the poor and to help as many people as possible.

He hopes that some day the bell ringing will no longer be necessary and that poverty will be stricken from the country. In the meantime, he said, bells will continue to be heard throughout Gwinnett and the United States.

"It reminds people that there are others out there, others in need," Westmoreland said. "When the bells don't have to ring anymore, what a great day that will be. We'll ring for another reason then - we'll ring for joy."